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Sheila Cheimets; broke barrier to join Canton selectmen

Sheila Cheimets ran for Canton’s Board of Selectmen in 1972 after the women’s movement had emerged as a national force. A mother of three young boys, she wore plaid bellbottoms and had just lost her job as managing editor of the Canton Reporter, because the newspaper folded.

One potential voter shook her hand, wished her luck, and told her he would not vote for her because she was a woman.

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“I thought it was strange,’’ she told the Globe in a 1974 interview. “I can’t imagine a woman saying anything like that to a man.’’

Winning by 90 votes, she became the first woman in the town’s history to serve on the board, and shrugged off the job’s gender-specific title.

“I consider it a generic term,’’ she said of the word selectman. “I don’t get hung up on things like chairperson or selectwoman. Selectman is what I am.’’

Mrs. Cheimets, who later was executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association and an activist in Boston’s South End, died Oct. 30 at Boston Medical Center after she was infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria this year, her family said. She was 75 and lived in the South End.

Her oldest son, Peter of Winchester, said she never put much stock in her pioneering achievements in Canton, where she rose to chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, until she became a grandmother.

‘She was an indefatigable supporter and defender of local government.’

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“It was more recently,’’ he said, “when she had her granddaughters around her, that she began to think about what their lives were going to be like now.’’

Born Sheila Greenblatt in the Bronx, N.Y., she was an only child raised in a household for which Yiddish was the primary language. Her father was an engraver who moved the family to Roxbury when she was 3 and opened a small grocery. Her mother was a member of the Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Mrs. Cheimets graduated in 1953 from Roxbury Memorial High School for Girls, where she was voted most likely to succeed, and went to Brandeis University.

She met her future husband, David, when they were working at a summer camp together. They married during her junior year of college. She dropped out to have her first child, but soon returned and graduated in 1958 with a degree in English literature.

In the late 1960s, she decided to become a news reporter. In her first job with the Canton Reporter, she was paid $15 a week as a correspondent covering Board of Selectmen meetings.

Once elected, she initially clashed with the power structure, until she grasped the nuances of politics and softened her pitches.

“I’d come in with all my research and say: ‘This is the way we’re doing it now. Why can’t we do it this way?’ ’’ she said in the 1974 interview. “It was like hitting a brick wall. I think part of the response to my ideas was, ‘Who the hell does she think she is?’ And part of it was ‘Who does she think she is?’ ’’

She served a three-year term before being hired as a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit advocate for the state’s 351 cities and towns. Executive director from 1989 to 1991, she was credited with raising the association’s profile on Beacon Hill amid heated battles over local aid.

“She was a friend and mentor to many current and past MMA staff members,’’ said David Baier, the association’s legislative director. “She was an indefatigable supporter and defender of local government. Sheila brought energy and intelligence to everything she did, especially if she was engaged in a political argument.’’

A granddaughter said Mrs. Cheimets relished holding court and engaging her family in passionate discussions.

“She was extremely opinionated, but she wanted to hear what you had to say,’’ said Anna, who works in research and development at a high-tech lab in Andover. “It was always a discussion. She never sat there and told you want to think.’’

Mrs. Cheimets was known for upholding family traditions, many of which she began, including the breaking of an annual Hanukkah piñata. She and her grandchildren made a secret design each year out of papier-mâché, and she filled it with small toys and money.

In the late 1960s, Mrs. Cheimets and her husband extended their family to include Bruce Hodges, whom they met through a host families project. His father had died, leaving his mother to raise five children in public housing in Roxbury.

Hodges lived with the Cheimets family while attending Canton High School, where he said he was the only black student when the school required students wear a shirt and tie. He wore a turtleneck and a string tie the first week and was sent home. “She took me right back and told them, ‘He’s wearing a shirt and a tie,’ ’’ said Hodges, who lives in Tucson. “They allowed me back in the school.’’

Now a manager for a defense contractor, he said he owes a lot of his success to Mrs. Cheimets.

“She was a powerful persuader, a great politician, loving and caring,’’ Hodges said. “She was an incredible woman. There are not enough words to describe her.’’

Mrs. Cheimets was known as Nana to his five children and often hosted them at her summer house in the Onset section of Wareham. She showed his daughter Savannah around the State House and took her on a tour of Boston-area colleges.

“She always wanted us to have a goal in mind,’’ said Savannah, who attends college in Tucson. “She always wanted to know what our next step was.’’

A service has been held for Mrs. Cheimets, who in addition to her husband, son, granddaughter, and Hodges, leaves two other sons, Steven of Medford and Alex of Arlington; and three other granddaughters.

In the early 1980s, Mrs. Cheimets and her husband bought a brownstone on Massachusetts Avenue in the South End. She renovated the house, volunteered with the Chester Square Area Neighborhood Association, and helped raise funds to restore the gardens in Chester Square.

Mrs. Cheimets envisioned a landscaped urban oasis that complemented the history and beauty of the square, which was modeled on its counterparts in England.

“Every building there in 1870 is here now, and it is still wholly residential,’’ she told the Globe in December 1999. “Many squares in London are no longer residential, and many portions of squares in Boston were torn down. It was also one of the grandest, if not the grandest, square designed for the city.’’

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@mac.com.
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